I've Been There
Hopelink Food Bank Coordinator Gives Back
Eight-year-old Dustin Yongue was walking down a sidewalk in Anchorage, Alaska when his mother realized her son had a special kind of empathy for others.
My mom had given me $5 to spend that day,” he said. “I saw a homeless man – he was trying to sell this really terrible sculpture he had made. He approached me, and I asked how much he was selling it for. He said it was $5 … so I bought it.”
My mom thought, ‘this kid is different … he’s a giver.’” She was right.
Dustin grew up in small-town Alaska, in a community where asking for help was frowned upon.
“People were self-sufficient – they were hunters, fishermen, gold miners, oil drillers. You were expected to take care of yourself.”
Back then, the son of a geologist/surveyor father and a mother who cleaned houses and worked at a gas station never imagined he would someday be the one asking for help.
Born in Idaho, Dustin and his parents and two sisters moved to Alaska when Dustin was five years old. From a very early age, he had a passion for art – often creating drawings that his mom would turn into small books; adding words to his pictures.
After high school, Dustin worked in a gold mine alongside his dad until enrolling in college to study art history – later pursuing 3-D design and earning a four-year degree. He got a job as a designer/purchaser for a furniture company and worked his way into interior design in the Seattle area.
Dustin and his wife, Beth, both settled into steady careers as interior designers; earning a good living and planning the future together. It was 2008, and the young family – Beth has two kids from a previous marriage – had recently purchased a condominium in Bellevue. Then the recession hit.
“We were doing great,” Dustin said. “And then we both lost our jobs. We found part-time work, but it wasn’t enough. It was very weird – I’ve always had one or two jobs. I’ve never had a problem finding work.” Times had changed.
Despite his self-reliant Alaskan roots, Dustin realized that asking for help was the family’s only option.
“Struggling isn’t new to me, but needing to ask for help – that was new,” Dustin said.
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You have to take your pride and your ego and just put it away … because those emotions won’t feed you when you’re hungry. Accepting that you can’t do it yourself ... that’s hard. Beth and I sat in the car outside the Bellevue Hopelink office for quite awhile… we held hands. It was really hard.
“We applied for energy assistance first, and then we started going to the food bank,” he said. “And we were able to get help with one condo payment.”
The family used Hopelink services for about a year; managing to keep a roof over their heads and make sure the kids were fed.
Both eventually found full-time work, but the tough times had clearly changed them. The little boy who once gave all the money in his pocket to a homeless man found his calling in the nonprofit world, and began driving a “Big Blue Truck” for Northwest Center, then moved into sales. Beth also joined a nonprofit organization.
Last fall, Dustin came back to Hopelink; this time to volunteer. Within a month, he was hired as the Food Bank Coordinator at the Sno-Valley Center in Carnation. Clearly, the man who has walked more than a mile in many of the shoes he sees every day, gets it.
“Hearing my story is so helpful for when people have tough times in here,” he said.
“There was a gentleman who came one day – he had been in real estate. And he had lost his home and his job and his family. He kept asking himself out loud, ‘what am I doing here?’ I walked with him to go get food, and he was saying, ‘I can’t do this – I can’t take from other people.’”
Dustin shared his story, and the man agreed to accept help.
“I got a hug,” Dustin said. “I got a hug from a grown man. He was in tears.”
Dustin knows as well as anyone what that first step feels like.
“You’re so fragile, but you try to be so casual and aloof when you walk in,” he said. “I did that, and I see people doing that here ... just trying to look like they’re not scared. I have a lot of respect for the people that show up, because it takes a lot to come in.”
Dustin has a gift for knowing exactly what people need – especially when they’re in crisis.
“Someone called once who had fought his way through the flooded roads to get to the food bank, and it was closed,” Dustin said. “He called just to yell at someone ... he was angry. I said, ‘okay how about if I just pack up some food and bring it to you?’ He was totally taken aback … he decided he didn’t need delivery. He ended up driving back in to pick up the food.”
And to meet Dustin – the man who seemed to understand that he just needed to be heard.
Hopelink’s Sno-Valley Center Food Bank currently serves more than 300 people, and Dustin says he was initially surprised at how many people are struggling these days.
“I didn’t realize the need,” he said. “I knew there were people out there who needed food – I needed food once – but it’s amazing how many working families need to use the food bank. And I think in this area there are still a lot of people who think ‘we can make it on our own,’ and they just struggle through.”
Dustin understands that as well; having found a bit of small-town Alaskan resilience in Sno-Valley. His journey from designing high-end living spaces to feeding people in need wasn’t an easy one, but in some ways, it brought him home.
“I have been a general regional manager ... I’ve done those jobs – I don’t care to anymore,” he said.
On the wall in his office is a copy of a recent food bank sign-in sheet. Off to the side of the signature line is a column marked “notes.” In about half of those spaces are the words, “thank you,” written by clients.
“I get hugs, tears, thank yous,” Dustin said. “That’s why I wanted to help. Here were people who so appreciated what you were doing every day. I love my work. And I’m very attached to this community.”
Clearly, the feeling is mutual.